Book review: Born Standing Up

by Steve Martin

To those who know him only as the star of such Hollywood pap as Cheaper By The Dozen 2 or the embarrassing remakes of Sergeant Bilko and the Pink Panther, it would be hard to explain that 30 years ago Steve Martin was the world’s biggest stand-up star. His calendar for September 1978 shows 33 arena shows in a month, performing his inventively wacky, high-energy shtick to up to 19,000 people a time.

Just three years later her had quit, turning his back on the art form that had taken him the best part of a lifetime to perfect, never to look back. Or, as spoof interviewer Dennis Pennis once put it, in the one cheap-shot exchange creator Paul Kaye says he still regrets to this day: ‘How come you’re not funny any more’.

Well Born Standing Up answers that question, in part, as well as plotting Martin’s path to the top of his game, both creatively and financially. In short, pretty much what you would expect of a comedian’s autobiography. But what makes these memoirs unique are that the emphasis is not on anecdotes, but on Martin’s relationship to the demanding mistress of stand-up.

The enjoyably brisk book is frank and introspective – yet somehow manages not to reveal too much about this intensely guarded star. Its strength lies in what it reveals about the mechanics and reality of comedy – subjects he clearly considers of more interest than intimate details about his own life.

What we do learn, though, is that like so many before him and since, Martin turned to comedy to escape a dysfunctional family relationship. In his case, his emotionally distant father, prone to furious rages aimed at the family he seemingly blamed for frustrating his own dreams. Martin concludes that his whole stand-up career was an attempt to make his uncommunicative father proud of him.

As a youngster, Martin escaped his unhappy home life by landing a job at a magic shop inside Disneyland, where he would demonstrate the tricks. Here he learned the art of showmanship that was to form such a crucial part of his later success, not to mention discovering the arrow-through-the-head prop that would become his most famous visual gag. Martin developed an act, peppered with old jokes and old tricks, which helped him land a job at another California tourist attraction, Knott’s Berry Farm, performing regularly at its theatre. And all this while still at college.

For someone who built an act based on a ‘wild and crazy guy’ persona, Martin has always been sober and methodical in his approach to comedy, as this book clearly emphasises. Even at an early age he thought he had no natural skills, such as singing, dancing or musicianship, but concluded: ‘Thankfully perseverance is a great substitute for talent’ so painstakingly worked on his act.

Indeed, in the opening sentence he says: ‘I did stand-up comedy for18 years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining and four were in wild success.’ But he says he rarely enjoyed the performances, as ‘enjoyment would have been an indulgent loss of focus that comedy cannot afford. After the shows, however, I experienced long hours of misery or elation, depending on how the show went, because doing comedy alone on stage is the ego’s last stand.’

He started this ‘plodding’ path to success in earnest in San Francisco at the height of the flower-power era, adopting a hippy attitude, making grand pronouncements about striving to be‘avant-garde’ in his act, smoking a lot of dope and availing himself of a lot of free love.

He became a writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a hip and edgy show that seemed to be forever mired in controversy – although, infuriatingly, Martin doesn’t go in to details for those unfamiliar with the finer points of late-1960s American TV comedy. But all the while he was perfecting his club act, performing as often as he could.

Martin was in the right place at the right time, as, like the rest of America, comedy was in transition; in this case between the old-school gag-tellers and the new breed of comedians talking about real life as they saw it. Lenny Bruce had already paved the way, but Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Mort Sahl were perfecting it, all in their own particular way – which set the stage for Martin’s zany act in the years to come.

He took inspiration as much from his psychology class as he did from other comics, studying the theory that people laughed at jokes because of the release of tension in a punchline. ‘What if there weren’t punchlines?’, he thought, and began to experiment in ‘anti-comedy’ that, naturally enough, not everyone got.

But he determinedly marched ahead regardless, quitting writing and taking to that school of hard knocks comedians call ‘the road’, gigging far and wide, in often insalubrious venues, earning vital experience.

‘The consistent work enhanced my act,’ Martin writes. ‘I learned a lesson: It was easy to be great. Every entertainer has a night when everything is clicking. These nights are accidental and statistical: Like lucky cards in poker, you can count on them occurring over time. What was hard was to be good, consistently good, night after night, no matter what the abominable circumstances. Performing in so many varied situations made every predicament manageable.’ You won’t find as wise and insightful a passage as that in a shelf-ful of ‘teach yourself comedy’ manuals .

As his confidence grew, he would take more risks, such as leading the audience out into the street, unsure what might happen. His prepared routines became incrementally better, too, as this meticulous technician tried tiny variations each night, gauging the response and making adjustments accordingly. His oblique approach started producing real laughs, and finally, as he puts it ‘forces converged’. Good reviews, a memorable performance on the Tonight Show, an album, and growing word of mouth meant his audiences grew into the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands. Watch Martin’s performances from this era – and these memoirs will surely make you want to do that – and you will witness comic brilliance that has rarely been equalled.

Yet as his bank balance swelled, Martin’s already limited enjoyment waned. The act felt automatic, robbed of the experimentation he could get away with in small venues. Nuances were lost in cavernous ampitheatres.‘On stage, I was no longer the funniest I ever was,’ he writes. But quitting something he had worked so long to achieve, and that was now earning him huge wages, would be hard.

He also knew his time as the hottest thing in comedy would be short-lived. So while he exploited it, he also looked for a way out – distilling his act into a film, The Jerk, which remains one of the funniest, silliest movies ever made. Then in 1981, he quit live work with no regrets. He says he has never even reminisced about these formative 18 years until writing this autobiography.

But it was worth the wait. According to the quote from Jerry Seinfeld that graces the cover, Born Standing Up is ‘one of the best books about comedy and being a comedian ever written.’ It’s hard to disagree; this perceptive and engaging autobiography should grace the collection of everyone with an interest in stand-up comedy.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
December 2007

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £15.99. Click here to order from Amazon for £8.99

Published: 28 Dec 2007

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